I want to start with a story about my life—a story whose meaning and moral is not particularly clear, even to me.
My life seemed to be falling apart. I was exhausted and burned out, tired of a teaching position that had once seemed perfect, mourning the end of a romantic relationship, and struggling with the remaining physical symptoms of my wheat allergy. I left my teaching position and moved to a town where I had good friends and could hope to find more, took a low stress job in technology support at a local college, and hoped that a year in such environs would help me recover, feel better, know where I was going. I tried therapy, began sessions with a particular modality of gentle bodywork, found an acupuncturist, biked to work, got involved in a UU congregation, and took a meditation class. A year later, life didn’t seem any better—in fact it seemed worse.
As a last resort, I headed for the woods. I had found healing alone in the woods before and perhaps now, the same would happen. I didn’t really know why I was doing this, but I sensed somehow I needed to. By chance I heard on the radio the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel beside the river. Suddenly everything fell into place. I was going to the woods to wrestle with God and find a blessing and some answers.
I thought it would be easy. I’d spent many nights alone in the woods, I thought it would feel like a restful vacation. But that first afternoon, after leaving a note in my car not to tow it and bushwacking into the woods, I began to realize that I wasn’t just wrestling with God, I was wrestling with myself. It began to rain. And I couldn’t find a stream or good water source, just swamps.
The first two days I hiked, meditated, found water, and did yoga. The serene retreat I’d imagined was anything but. My inner dialogue yammered and was almost impossible to put up with, but I couldn’t escape. I had to force myself to do things normally relaxing and enjoyable. The whine of the mosquitoes made sleep nearly impossible and was severely distracting while meditating, even with mosquito netting to protect my skin.
The last night, feeling slightly silly, I sat down in front of my campfire and poured out all of my complaints about my life. I demanded to know what I was supposed to be doing with my life and how I could find some peace and satisfaction. The answer came almost immediately, words not outside my head, but inside. “You don’t get to know yet.” The answer was entirely unsatisfying, but it came with an incredible sense of peace.
I still don’t know what to make of that experience. I am as capable as any of you of rationalizing the experience. But I know it happened. And I know that was a profound turning point in my life, perhaps even the one that started my path to ministry. The funny thing is that I didn’t then think of myself as a theist, and I don’t now. I’m still not sure about God.
In seminary I wrote, “There are days when I am sure God is real, days when I am sure there is no God—at least the sort of God displayed in so many other churches—and days when I know that doubt and acceptance of mystery are the most humble and faithful ways in which to walk. This is not unusual for a Unitarian Universalist, minister or not. Our shared theology is not rooted in a theology of God.”
Each of us, since we were as young as the children who recently sat among us, have asked questions to which there are no answers. We now know something of the formation of the universe, perhaps in a week we will know even more. But we do not know what came before the Big Bang. We don’t know what lies beyond the universe. We can barely imagine the possibility that existence is limited for our minds are inclined to ask what lies beyond the limits. Where does my sense of self come from, merely from the firing of the neurons in my brain, or is my existence somehow more than my bodily existence? Where was I before I was born? Where will I be afterwards? Is there simply nothing and those who have a sense of the presence of spirits simply hallucinating? In the face of this mystery, what meaning does my life have? Does life, in fact, have any meaning at all or is it one big cosmic joke?
These questions, and many more, are inherently unanswerable. We may gradually know more, but always beyond the limits of our understanding, we will face mystery. How we respond to that mystery is the question. This morning, I expect we will use the word “God” many more times than is typical for a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Because this word can only point to mysteries we do not understand, please remember that each time the word is used it may refer to an entirely different understanding and so at each instance, we will each have to listen between the lines to try to hear what the speaker or author is struggling to articulate.
I want to begin with a collection of very short readings, quotes by Unitarian Universalist authors on God:
“I am an unrepentant liberal. If the gods of yesterday are dying, I am willing that they die. For there is a God who never dies, the one and only living God whose face is ever set towards tomorrow. And for those who follow where he leads, the winds of morning are already blowing, and however long the night may linger, the day of triumph is in sight.” A Powell Davies1 “This power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God. God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being. Life force, spirit of life, ground of being, these too are names for the unnamable which I am now content to call my God.” Forrest Church
“To put it most starkly, we have been created by a process in which we have to, in turn, become creators ourselves. The divine urge of creation has become personal in us. The evolutionary network of ecological development, the God whom our ancestors worshipped as Loving Creator, this great God has become conscious and self-aware in us.” Dwight Brown
“God is the word I use to allude to that source of wonder and mystery that I experience when I contemplate the fact of my existence. I would call God—the spiritual evolution of the cosmos—creation flowing free. God is the unfolding, the potentiality, the newness. God is not the answer to the mystery of life, so much as the acknowledgement of the mystery.” Ann Fields
“God is like the ocean. It is real, powerful, implacable. It is a source of beauty and pleasure and food. It can wreck ships and hills with neither remorse nor malevolence. It is in constant motion and ever-changing.” Brandoch L. Lovely
One of the main inspirations for this service is a book by Unitarian Universalist minister Tom Owen-Towle called Wrestling with God. Before reading this book, I think on some level I viewed my own unwillingness to firmly stake out a position as somehow suspect. Tom Owen-Towle let me know that I am not alone. Like Rev. Owen-Towle, I’ve come to a place where I value the conflicting voices in my mind. Tom Owen-Towle divides these voices into atheist, agnostic, and affirmationist, a yes to something or someone.
Atheism is a denial of the existence of God. I’d be surprised if there’s anyone in here without such a voice in your head. The question is more which Gods you don’t believe in. I mean that—which Gods don’t you believe in?
Throughout history, people have been called atheist when they denied the existence of the God or gods most prevalent, even if they affirmed another God. This was one of the charges leveled at the early Christians and one of the charges leveled at some of the early Universalists and Unitarians for their heretical theology.
There are certainly gods I do not believe in. I do not believe in a God who created this world as a sort of test, giving us intellect and reason that it might confuse us from the true path, and that all who do not confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will be judged guilty of Adam’s and Eve’s sin and sent to hell.
Nor do I believe in a God that doles out status, success, and money to the pure and worthy and that those who have not found earthly success must somehow be sinful and evil.
I do not believe God wills us to suffer on earth and it is his will for women to stay in abusive relationships so that they might demonstrate Christ’s love. I do not believe that we earn “pie in the sky” for our suffering here on earth.
I do not believe it possible that there is an all-powerful and all-knowing God who loves people for how could such a God let us suffer the way so many people suffer?
Atheism is a voice which cuts down false gods, pointing our delusions and false ideas.
Atheism can take itself too seriously, forgetting the limits of mystery, can become as rigid as any other kind of fundamentalism. For atheism is essentially a denial and we require not only denial, but also wonder, awe, and mystery. We require a yes to something of life. Listen to these voices who claim atheism as their central belief and hear their yeses to life:
“Our moral and spiritual side is an aspect of the nature of the universe just as our physical hungers are, which suggests that Nature has a spiritual character and potential…this kind of humanism is actually a religion. It ties us to our home—the natural universe—with bonds of love, gratitude, and dependence, and it makes room for the unknown, which still and always surrounds us, despite all the achievements of human knowledge and the discoveries of science.” Peter Samsom
“I am an atheist. It’s hard to say this without sounding either boastful or apologetic, and I don’t mean to be either. Although it’s not a part of the usual definition of atheism, I believe all our actions, words, and thoughts affect the structure of the universe. Our effect may be vanishingly small, but when many people act or think in unison, the effect is multiplied many times.” Henry Stone.
“It has always seemed evident to me that we live in an indifferent universe. It is up to us to make of it what we can. The only thing God adds to this situation is a wish that somebody stronger than ourselves is making things go well for us in the long run. The real negative of God is that we give up our responsibility to make this earth a good place to live.” Carol Wintermute
“I am an atheist. I do not believe in God. Never did. But there is more. I also love God. I am an atheist who loves God….the word God serves as a symbol, a focus for the thoughts, feelings, and intuitions that go into our intimate, inward relation with the whole of reality, both known and unknown, seen and unseen.” John Alexie Crane
Another voice many of us carry in our heads is an agnostic voice, a voice which claims we can never know. Agnosticism honors the mystery. Agnosticism requires atheism and theism or affirmationism to admit that much of what they believe they take on faith and cannot prove. Agnosticism recalls us to humility, even claims that such humility is the most faithful way to live.
Our agnosticism reminds us that many faith traditions have remained silent on God, including Buddhism, Confucianism, and Jainism. The Buddha is said to have been asked about the existence of God. His reply was, “that question does not lead to edification.” We remember that a firm answer to the question of God’s existence is not necessary to be spiritual people.
Agnosticism can, like atheism or theism, become a rigid belief. Militant agnosticism—I don’t know and you don’t either! In this rigidity, we lose the sense of possibility, wonder, and awe that agnosticism, at it’s best, offers us.
But, agnosticism is not quite enough for most of us. We want to know. Blessed or cursed by our questioning minds, many of us are not content to rest here, no matter how often we return.We'd like to know something, to arrive somewhere on our questioning journey.
“Is agnosticism enough? Agnosticism is not the denial of anything’ it is the acknowledgement of finitude. We all need the humility of agnosticism. Of course we cannot comprehend an infinite universe! And yet I say that agnosticism is not enough. I want to push the search. I want some answers…God means for me that in life and in death no spiritual or moral energy, no love or compassion or heroism is ever wasted.” Dana Mclean Greeley
“I call myself a mystical agnostic because even though we cannot know about a creator or sustainer, we do know, I believe, that the proper response to the miracle of existence is wonder, awe, worship, allegiance. So I append the word mystical. On the intellectual level, I am an agnostic; on the emotional, a mystic. Will I ever be whole? Will I ever know? Probably not.” Stephan Papa.
When Unitarian Universalists affirm the holy, we often use words other than God, because of the association the word God has with versions of the holy in which we cannot believe. However, many of us do find glimpses of the holy in our lives, something that if the word God is treated gently enough, we might even use God to describe. Somehow, we said yes to something or someone. Tom Owen-Towle calls this “affirmationist”.
Many of us have found that somewhere along the way we said “yes” to someone or something. We may find prayer a conversation with a presence we cannot describe. We may find in serving others we gain a sense of connectedness to something much larger than ourselves. We may find a glint or a flicker of the divine in the wilderness or in our own gardens. We may find it in play or in the love we share with our families and friends. We may find a presence with us in the darkest times in our lives and realize that we are not alone. We may find a mystical connection in silence and in meditation and know there is something beyond what we can see, taste, touch, hear, and feel.
Such a presence may calm us, may bring us peace, it may trouble us, it may shake us with awe, it may change the course of our lives. We may not call this God, or we may qualify what we mean by God. God may mean an energy running through all life. God may mean all that is. God may be a oneness. God may be a presence, a power, a creativity. God may be the sparks of the divine in all creation. God may be a voice which calls us ever to greater possibility and wholeness. God may be what draws the sap in the tree upwards in the spring, what causes our hearts to beat, or the deepening of human love. God may be the wild power in this world, the wild power in a world where some creatures eat others, where hurricanes blow out their powerful winds, where snow and blizzards cover the winter lands. God may be all of these.
“ ‘the Goddess Process’…has allowed me to blend my love of nature with a love of humanism, and to blend all of this into a faith that nurtures and embraces me. At home in my study, to remind me of my journey to wholeness through the Goddess, I have an alter that is filled with Her presence—images of the Goddess. I keep these near, to remind me of the Goddess and the celebration of womanself that she has to offer. I touch and hold them for inspiration and support, and each small figure feeds and strengthens me.” Denise D. Tracy
“If a radio reporter ever came to my home, I would say that God is the creative force that has cast each of us into this world. God is the love in and between people. God does not willfully direct hurricanes onto the beaches of the unjust. God is the moral conscience that demands we walk these beaches hand-in-hand, building together where hurricanes have destroyed.” Jane Mauldin
“Freedom resides in every discrete entity in the universe: in atoms and cells and our own identities we call selves. What is created is not god. What creates is god. God is a verb, not a noun. All the world is not god. God is an active indwelling presence.” Roy Reynolds
I cannot, I will not try to give one simple answer. I do not believe any one of us can truly answer the God question. I expect I will continue to have experiences and moments which throw my off balance, which may lead me closer to a sense of the holy or throw me into doubt.
What I do know is that each of these voices keeps us slightly off balance and this is a good thing. The glimpses of divinity we see in our world lead us toward God, God the one who plays hide and seek with us, who is near and yet far. Our atheist voices tear down false images of God, and our agnostic voices recall us to humility. Any one of these voices can falsely claim to be the only true voice, falsely lead us to an arrogant surety.
So while each of us may have a dominant voice, my prayer for each of our spiritual journeys is that we stay open to the other voices - that we do not become dogmatically stuck in one place, for nothing could be worse for our growth as spiritual beings. May we speak the deepest truths we know, even when those truths seem paradoxical, even illogical. For to speak only logically, but to fail to speak truthfully betrays our deepest selves. May we come to treasure the different voices in this community for the way they nudge our own spiritual journey forwad. May our paradoxes, contradictions, and stumbling attempts to name the unnamable bring us wisdom, compassion, and peace even if they do not bring us certitude.
1All quotes from Tom Owen-Towle's Wrestling with God. Barking Rocks Press; 1st edition (2002)